Diwali & Decolonization

by Vijay Prashad

(a talk at Brown University, 26 October 1996)

Today we gather to celebrate Diwali, Dipavali [the row of (oil) lamps], the festival of lights. There is no single story which explains Diwali, for some traditions tell of Vishnu's victory over the anti-God Naraka or of Bali while other traditions exalt Krishna or yet others, the most popular, tell of the return of Rama to Ayodhya after his long exile and his campaigns in Lanka. The day of Diwali is seen as a day of renewal, as the start of the new year. Tulsidas' Ramcaritmanas (16th Century) tells us that the "arrival of Ram in Ayodhya was like the rising of the full moon over the ocean....Beautiful women filled golden plates with fruits, flowers and curds and flocked to the streets singing songs of welcome. Men surged forward in vast numbers, eager to pay respects to their beloved Ram" (Uttarkand, 1. 2). Diwali refers specifically (in these traditions) to the creation of a new kingdom, but more generally to a renewal. Diwali functions, therefore, as a metaphor rather than as the commemoration of any specific event. The tales of Diwali function as a smrti, as the process of remembering the past to gain wisdom. Tonight, I will invoke the Rama tale in order to help us be wise in our judgement of decolonization and the history of the Indian State.

To invoke the story of Rama these days is an unhappy predicament. The forces of Hindutva have taken the figure of Rama and made him into a fierce warrior whose beloved conscience is left behind at pre-adolescence. From the start of the Ramjanambhoomi-Babari Masjid agitation, the beneficence of Rama was replaced by a severe and cruel Ram. While the RSS/VHP 'kar sevaks' demolished the mosque at Ayodhya, a person at a microphone continued to chant, "Shri Ram Jai Ram, Jai Jai Ram." The wanton destruction of a building was serenaded with the name of Rama. The massacre of dalits and Muslims in its aftermath was also glorified with passionate cries to the honor of Rama. The blood which has sanctified this deity makes me wonder if there is any need to remember Diwali through him: are there not other stories for our nyasa (identification by homology)? Fortunately, the forces of Hindutva invoke only one marginal tradition of Rama for the multiple forms (bahurupa) of Rama offer a history full of the complexities of life rather than the simple Bunyanesque tale proffered by the theocratic fascists.

The story of Rama comes in many packages. The Ramayana (400 BCE-300CE) offers us the character of Rama, an avatar of Vishnu, who is to be the model of Righteousness, but not a Righteousness familiar to the authors of the Vedas and of the Dharmashastras. Rama does not keep to his varna domain, but consorts with various oppressed castes and outcast tribes. Rama, further, does not appear as an abstract Vedic God, but as the personalized figure whose presence inaugurates the Bhakti (personal devotion) tradition which is commonly found in devotional poetry as well as in the common north Indian greeting, 'Ram, Ram.' The Ramcaritmanas draws from this latter notion and transforms the figure from a commonplace hero into a personal God accessible to the masses (the text, after all, was written in Avadhi not in Sanskrit). The various texts offer the story of Ram to make pedagogical and moral points: the Ramayana argues for the colonization of the peoples of the subcontinent while the Ramcaritmanas argues for the worship of an iconic figure rather than, for instance, a consideration of the Upanishads' metaphysics.

Diwali commemorates one event in the life of Rama: the triumphant return of Rama to Ayodhya after his exile and his defeat of Lanka. The return, however, comes in the midst of a relentless campaign of terror against Sita which bears recollection. After Rama's army liberates Sita from her captivity in the palace of Ravana, Rama demands an ordeal of fire, an agni-pariksha, to test her sexual purity as well as her fidelity. "I have suspected your character," Rama says (Yuddhakandam, CXVII), "You were taken by Ravana on his lap, beheld by him with sinful eyes; how can I, taking you back, bring disgrace upon my great family?...I have got no attachment for you -- do you go wherever you wish, O gentle one." Sita, the Ramayana tells us, "trembled like a creeper torn by the trunk of an elephant" and she wept. Sita goes through the fire and comes out unscathed and Rama declares that "if I would take the daughter of Janaka without purifying her, people would say that Rama the son of King Dašaratha is lustful and ignorant of the morality of the people" (Ibid., CXX). He accepts Sita and they enter Ayodhya. He rules in Ayodhya, but his mind is still nettled with suspicion. To restore his reputation amongst his councilors and citizens, Rama asks Lakshaman to take Sita into exile. Sita, in the forest learns of her fate, and she cries aloud "with the notes of peacocks" (Uttarakandam, LVIII). Exiled, Sita gives birth to twins. When Rama finds her later, he forces upon her a third trial; this time, she enjoins the earth to part and accept her (in much the same way as Kalidasa's Shakuntala enters the earth to seek refuge from the betrayal of men). Rama's Rajya, the time of great peace, is disturbed by the citizenry's demand to constantly test the loyalty of women.

The test of loyalty is not an unfamiliar project in our contemporary times. In mid August 1947, the British withdrew from military control over the subcontinent; in place of the Empire, two republics came into existence (Pakistan and India). Next year, we will celebrate the process of decolonization and recognize the vibrant and educational history of the 'freedom movement.' The anniversary will offer us the welcome opportunity to dwell on the courage of the freedom fighters, from the anonymous Satyagrahis to the well-known leaders. Since the year is also the anniversary of the Indian State, I hope that we will take time to consider its history as well. 1947 was the Diwali of the subcontinent, since it allowed for renewal. Like the roots of Diwali, the history of our republic is marked by the tales of many Sitas -- women, dalits, adivasis, Muslims, the working-class -- who have had to face tests of loyalty, ordeals of fire. I do not wish to repeat the well-known litany of barbaric ordeals inflicted upon the oppressed and the exploited. A string of dates which mark riots and police-firings do not adequately capture the pain inflicted upon the subordinate. We accept our guilt in the face of murder, we console our shame with our sophism. We justify the murder of Muslims by some false argument about their disloyalty; we justify the harassment of women by some specious claims about Dharma; we justify the exploitation of workers by recourse to the double entry account book (which now stands-in as Reason). The agni-pariksha of the multitude continues within the realm of our republic. Like Rama, we constantly demand the ordeal to establish the dominance of the powerful.

As events turn for the worse, I turn eventually to Gandhi for solace and for stimulation. During the mayhem after Ayodhya, I read a line from Gandhi (written in 1925): "It is good to swim in the waters of tradition, but to sink in them is suicide" (Navajivan, 28 June 1925). To claim to be the solitary authors of the spiritual destiny of a nation or of humanity is a repudiation of the idea that historical traditions are to give us comfort and wisdom in our pursuit to make a better society. To set tradition above our struggles for a beloved society is to do an injustice to real, living people as well as to the various philosophical traditions which repudiate the notion of a singular interpretation. During the phase of rapid disenfranchisement of the working people of India since 1991, I turned to Gandhi again: "the test of orderliness in a country is not the number of millionaires it owns, but the absence of starvation among its masses" (lecture at Muir Central College, Allahabad, 22 December 1916). With 55 million children at work in export industries which stunt their physical and mental development, with an end to the basic grain subsidies, with an end to the support for and rights of peasants and industrial workers, India seems ready to tread the path of Brazil, Mexico and Indonesia -- all nations with some wealthy folks and an enormous population which must feel the fires of an unprincipled ordeal each day. Gandhi, in India, is now a statue, a figure for a museum. We have made our pact with history and forgotten his wisdom as well as the grief of Ram at the time when he enjoined the endless and ruthless ordeals. At least he expressed grief; all that most of us have expressed is the sense that certain unseen forces compel us to see the vast masses move to poverty and to death for the sake of national development. When Sita descends into the earth, Rama returns to Ayodhya "stricken with sorrow and grief...with his eyes full of tears, with his face downwards and with a dejected mind" (Uttarakandam, CXI). We have a figure capable of remorse and mercy. Such emotions seem to have vanished from an elite who have taken the verities of neo-classical economics in the vein of a sruti (primary scripture) which is seen as apauruseya (impersonal), abstract and beyond human intervention. Such an attitude to life betrays the vast mass to ceaseless toil without the hope of economic subsistence and cultural sustenance.

To end, there is no better place to gain strength and solace than from Faiz Ahmed Faiz:

Baqi hai lahu dil mein to har ashk se paida
Rang-e-lab-o-rukhsar-e-sanam karte-rahenge.
Ek tarz-e-taghaful hai so vo unko mubarak,
Ek 'arz-e-tamanna hai so ham karte-rahenge.
("Lauh-O-Qalam," Dast-e-Saba, 1952)

If blood remains in our heart, with every tear we produce
The color of the lips and cheeks of our love
There is a style of indifference to which they are welcome
But our wishes, we will continue to list.
(Tr. Mir Ali Raza).

Vijay Prashad
Assistant Professor, International Studies
214 McCook, Trinity College, Hartford, CT. 06106.

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